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Dream Songs: The Essential Joe Hisaishi
  • Composed by Joe Hisaishi
  • Decca / 132m

A double-disc compilation of highlights from Japan’s premiere film composer is nothing new (there have been many over the years) but the arrival of a new one always serves as a welcome reminder of his talents. Of course, he will forever be primarily associated with Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki and it’s no surprise that those collaborations feature heavily but there are more strings to his bow than just that and this album showcases some of them too (including some non-film works).

The recordings come from a mixture of places – certainly the majority (if not all) of them are re-recorded and often re-arranged, some of them are from live concert recordings – I only got the sound files to review so I can’t confirm how many (if any) of these recordings are brand new – but in any case, it doesn’t really matter because it’s a wonderful album.

Joe Hisaishi

We begin with the famous “One Summer’s Day” from Spirited Away, a breathless celebration of the wonder of nature, a feeling which runs through the early tracks. Kiki’s Delivery Service‘s main theme is another – this one more playful, full of such spirit; then Kikujiro‘s “Summer” is almost like a combination of the two, playful piano and pizzicato strings, fluttering winds, a sweeping and catchy melody. Hisaishi has such a wonderful command of the orchestra – these opening tracks all so light and fancy-free, all dominated by lovely tunes.

Two tracks from Porco Rosso are next – there’s not a great change in tone as we go to “Il Porco Rosso” first with its flowery piano theme but “Madness” is much more dramatic, with intense dark colours from the orchestra – the frantic wind solos that emerge from the chaos are gorgeous and then the horns take up the melody. Echoes of Nino Rota’s The Godfather give it the appropriate Italian feel at points. It’s such a grandly dramatic piece of music, quite wonderful.

Following this is another grand piece, the lengthy theme from Water Traveller – it starts calmly enough before an explosion of celebratory-sounding brass gives that section of the orchestra a great workout. Eventually we come to the central theme itself, sweeping and romantic, swelling up and down again – it’s another brilliant piece (and one I had never heard before). I don’t think “Oriental Wind” is from a film but stylistically it is entirely in keeping with what has come before on the album – a big, rousing theme given a full-bodied performance by the orchestra, moments of calm reflection never far away.

There is a bit of a change in “Silent Love” from A Scene at the Sea, which I assume is from the original soundtrack recording given the vintage sound of the synths which are given a starring role for the first time. It’s a nice, calming piece of music although clearly lacks the timeless feel of the orchestral tracks. Back to the orchestra for a suite from Departures, which begins as another piece of overt romance – this time more conventional, with a beautiful cello solo accompanying the piano at the start of the piece – the emotion becomes more strained and there is a clear sadness as it develops.

Perhaps the film that really raised Hisaishi’s profile in the west, Princess Mononoke is represented by a great suite covering the main thematic material – it’s a perfect summary of his style really, with the traditional orchestral style served up with Japanese flavours that are often quite subtle, grand themes soar off all over the place – it’s so good. We open with the sweeping main theme before segueing into some dark, heavily-percussive action material before everything is reduced down to a gorgeous duet for piano and violin.

“The Procession of Celestial Beings” from The Tale of Princess Kaguya is much quirkier, combining the grand orchestral gestures and marching percussion this time with some childish noises and much more playful passages. The first disc ends with the theme from the great My Neighbour Totoro, childish again but this time it’s youthful innocence that’s musically expressed, charmingly so.

Disc two is just as grand a showy for the most part but generally focuses on music for either solo piano or piano with accompaniment. It gets underway with the dreamy romance of “Ballade” from Brother, indeed for solo piano, and the more intimate feel continues with the smaller ensemble in the theme from Kids Return, which reminds me a bit of Michael Nyman at his most energetic (there is a feverish intensity to the strings). “Asian Dream Song” is another non-film piece but again the style is much in keeping with the rest of the album – the stirring melody is passed between piano and violins, it’s all very grand and expansive. “Birthday” by contrast is more in keeping with the more lullaby-like moments of the Ghibli scores, all sweet and lovely – and there’s an example of them up next, in “Innocent” from Castle in the Sky, another piece for solo piano (the start of a sequence of them), which sounds like an instrumental of a light ballad.

“Fantasia for Nausicaa” is a brilliant concert arrangement for piano of music from Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, performed of course by the composer in virtuoso style; then we have the romantic theme from Hana-bi, a crime thriller but you wouldn’t guess that from this piece. The playful “The Wind Forest” from My Neighbour Totoro stands in complete contrast and brings the sequence of solo piano tracks to an end.

Next come four non-film pieces, all (like much of the music on the album) connected in some way with nature and the wonder of life. “Angel Springs” for piano and strings is romantically expressive, sweet and summary; and “Nostalgia” is exactly what you’d expect. Then there is a lightness and joy to “Spring” which makes it one of the most attractive pieces on the whole album; and a more reflective sound to “The Wind of Life”, which again sounds like a song instrumental.

Princess Mononoke‘s “Ashitaka and San” is very much in the same vein – again it’s solo piano, again it’s charming and romantic and song-like. The lighthearted arrangement of the theme from Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea is full of charm (though I am surprised there isn’t a more substantial representation of that score), then “Cinema Nostalgia” is like a theme from golden age Hollywood. The album ends on a light note with the classical waltz “Merry-Go-Round” from Howl’s Moving Castle.

This compilation understandably highlights grand concert arrangements of suites and themes which does mean the focus is very much on one side of Hisaishi’s output. Actually when you start digging there’s a lot more to his music than that – but if you’re not familiar with the composer, what a great way this album would be to start. The “Essential” in the album’s name is, for once, not hyperbole.

Rating: ***** | |

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